Tuesday, May 10, 2005

City versus country

I've always wanted to live in either the center of a big city or way out in the country. I've lived most of my life in neither. I grew up in New York City, but in Queens, and today we live in a similar outer borough of London. In between, we've lived in a distant suburb of Boston (Acton) and some fairly rural areas of New Hampshire and Vermont. Which of those locations do you think would be better if you're trying to minimize your impact on the environment, or even just live more efficiently?

In our experience, the city is a better choice by a long shot. We drive far less, walk more and the munipical infrastructure we use (utilities, shops, schools) are considerably more efficient, at least a per-person basis. It's not that clear cut, of course. In Acton, we lived in an apartment building, but we had to drive a lot more and the local shops had to come with equipped with bigger parking lots. Here, we live in a bigger house, but I drive only on weekends. The longest trip I've taken in many months is 19 miles.

Toby Hemenway in his article, Rural versus Urban Sustainability has come to a similar conclusion after spending more than a decade in the country and then moving to Portland.

"I can’t help comparing this neighborhood to our old one," he write. "There, we were twelve families on two miles of road, driveways hundreds of feet long, all served by long runs of phone and electric wire, individual septic systems and wells, each commuting long distances. And with political and social views so divergent that feuds, gossip, and awkward conversations about safe topics were the norm. In the city, an equal group of twelve families use 10% of the road, wire, and pipe needed in my old neighborhood. Many neighbors bus or bike to work, or at worst, drive single-digit mileages."

Part of the problem, he says, is that the people living in the country have changed:

Over the last two decades, millions of people have moved out of cities. Many of them are people of modest means, driven out by the high costs of urban life. Unfortunately, they have brought their city ways with them. Our neighbors in the country all clearcut their land and planted acres of grass. Many built enormous houses, since low interest rates made more square footage affordable. Some put up glaring streetlights in their front yards. They bought boats, ATVs, RVs, and other gas-guzzling toys. Unlike earlier self-reliant country folk, these are simply city people with really big yards. And there are millions of them.

I still want my house by the sea, though. How can I have that and keep from living my life in the car?